Song Thoughts: Dave Brubeck’s “Blue Rondo” and Adaptations

One day, I’m going to have a podcast or a YouTube channel to discuss music. I’ve held back on republishing this here from my last blog in part because I hope to make this into one of the earliest episodes I do. Until it makes its transition into a new medium, however, this piece of writing on Dave Brubeck’s “Blue Rondo à la Turk” and the musical chain formed by his successors will have to do.

The Original Take:

To many jazz fans, Dave Brubeck’s “Blue Rondo à la Turk” needs no introduction. It is a standard of jazz piano, taking the scene in 1959 as part of the album Time Out.

As a little bit of background, the reason it is called what it is is because Brubeck was reportedly inspired by the 9/8 tempo used by Turkish street musicians, one of whom was said to have told him that “this tempo is to us what blues is to you.” (My limited exposure to Ottoman music can confirm this, but that’s a different story). Other than that, there’s little to say, other than to move onto…

A Nice Update:

From early on in his career, keyboardist Keith Emerson had strong jazz roots, even for a progressive rock keyboardists. Where compatriots such as Rick Wakeman or Tony Banks brought classical sounds to their groups, Emerson brought swing in as well. Of course he would find a way to include Dave Brubeck in his work.

I have included a live version as some of what I analyze in Emerson’s work is not present on the album version. Furthermore, the album includes David O’List, whose guitar part is intriguing but harder to analyze in the framework of the day.

There are some major takeaways from “Rondo”, the name Emerson gave his take on the song, as performed by The Nice. First and foremost, it introduces a problem Emerson would often have to contend with in adaptations, namely the fact that he had to work in the framework of a trio rather than a larger ensemble. In this case, he proceeds to give himself the entire melody instead of having a trade-off between two instruments (or more) as in Brubeck’s original where the keys and saxophone take turns. Secondly, he greatly simplifies the time signature, turning it from 9/8 into 4/4, or common, time. Last but not least, his tendency to quote classical pieces comes to the fore; “Toccata and Fugue” makes a surprise cameo midway through the studio version. Quoting classical pieces was a common trick he used, particularly in the next band he became a part of…

The Good Old ELP Treatment:

“Rondo” was the only piece to make the jump from a pre-ELP group to the power trio proper. It was a standard on the road until around 1973. By that point, the group dropped it in favor of more of their own music. It surfaced onstage with ELP’s two 80s spinoff groups, Emerson, Lake & Powell and Three, before returning to ELP proper in the 90s. It was even the last piece Emerson, Lake & Palmer ever played in 2010 at the High Voltage Festival. That they performed it so often can be seen asa tribute to the Nice, the only band which ceased to be when it lost its third of the triumvirate to ELP.

Live in Brussels, February 6 or 7 1971. The typical disclaimers about “Live in Zurich” apply.

The inclusion of the ELP take in the framework provided by the take done by the Nice actually moves the focus away from Emerson. His genius is quite uncontested. Surprisingly, it says more about Carl Palmer and about Greg Lake than it does about Emerson. A comparison between the Nice and ELP version can clue even the most die-hard fans of the Nice into what Emerson saw in his new bandmates.

First of all, one need look no further than the tempo. While Brian Davison and Lee Jackson were by all accounts capable players, they were unable to match the speed which Palmer and Lake were able to lend the piece. Furthermore, very little is sacrificed in terms of accuracy from all three. It seems that this is far closer to Emerson’s original vision for the song in terms of tempo. It could also be that they lost track of their original plan to play it slowly in the excitement!

Secondly, a quick analysis of both Palmer’s line and Lake’s line prove a great deal of talent and complexity. Palmer’s line is far lighter than Brian Davison’s, but at the same time provides a decent backing to Emerson. Lake, for his part, brings an incredibly strong and rather unique sound in his bassline. He never overshadows Emerson, but never lets anyone forget that he’s onstage as well! His work is slightly less swinging than Lee Jackson’s twangier version, fitting for a more powerful ELP sound and the ideal balance for Emerson with the lighter drum work now in play.

Finally, performances with ELP saw a greater example of Emerson’s improvisational abilities. These show a tighter and more cohesive improvisation than his onstage antics from the Nice, suggesting that he too was reaching greater musical maturity. Lake was able to follow him through any key change flawlessly, giving him greater room to have fun. In short, this piece proves that if the Nice taught Emerson to hit the ground running, ELP helped him in learning how to fly.

An Airey Tribute:

The last chapter of this comes courtesy of another genius on the rock scene. Don Airey first took on Dave Brubeck’s work with his first major rock ensemble, Cozy Powell’s Hammer. That group covered “Le Souk”, another of Brubeck’s songs. Besides that, Airey is a self-admitted ELP fan who from time to time quotes Keith Emerson’s work onstage. Airey included a piece on his 2013 album Keyed Up meant as a tribute to Emerson and Brubeck alike:

The genius of this tribute is in the patchwork elements, taking cues from all of the above pieces. The shifting time key bridges the gap between Brubeck’s masterpiece and Emerson’s adaptation. Meanwhile, by including the intro which most closely matches the Nice’s “Rondo” in tempo and bass twang, but switching to classical references within (including “Toccata and Fugue”, which Emerson occasionally included, as well as a dance from Peter Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake and W.A. Mozart’s Rondo a la Turk), Airey combines both the earlier and later versions Emerson worked on with Brubeck’s own work. All of this is held together with the sort of flair that only Don Airey can add.

In all, it is a worthy tribute, from one master of the keys to another, which helps canonize Emerson’s version. It has lent credence to the practice of musical patchwork which so characterized Emerson’s style. Just as importantly, it has kept the musical conversation going. It shows that music like this still very much has a place in the twenty-first century. Hopefully one day, a fourth keyboardist will add their own rebuttal, continuing the musical conversation on Dave Brubeck’s “Blue Rondo” further.

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Note: this was originally published on another platform in June 2018. It appears here mildly modified from its original form.

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